Critical Overview

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Critical reception of Flyin’ West has been overwhelmingly positive. Critics commend Cleage for portraying a forgotten chapter in history and for doing so in a way that empowers women. Jane T. Peterson and Suzanne Bennett in Women Playwrights of Diversity: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook wrote that this play ‘‘provides a new and unique perspective on the traditional telling of how the West was won.’’ Similarly, Cathy Madison of American Theatre wrote, ‘‘Frank’s fate is ultimately decided by the women themselves. Unwilling as they are to relinquish their land and freedom, they manage to offer a searing new testament to how the West was won.’’ Addressing the importance of Cleage’s focus on history in several of her plays (including Flyin’ West), Freda Scott Giles observed in African American Review:

Cleage seeks to bring us to grips with our American past and to help us understand and acknowledge its impact on present conditions, especially with regard to issues of race and gender. She examines great historical events and movements not through the eyes of leaders and celebrities but through the experiences of the ordinary people who lived them.

Other critics agree that the female characters are admirable and the themes are relevant today. As a feminist, Cleage introduces themes of female power, relationships, and injustice in her plays, and Flyin’ West is no exception. In Significant Contemporary American Feminists: A Biographical Sourcebook, editor Jennifer Scanlon described the play as blending ‘‘serious feminist concerns with melodrama, balancing motifs of sexism, rape, wifebattering, miscegenation and racism, betrayal, and murder.’’ The characters in the play face unique challenges, and critics find their courage inspiring. Steve Monroe of American Visions found that the characters ‘‘entertain audiences with passion and humor, anger and wit, idealism and dignity.’’ Scanlon noted that the story ‘‘pivots around a primarily female cast whose efforts to establish, protect, and defend each other and their property withstand attacks not only from outside (whites encroaching upon their territory) but also from inside (one of their own men betrays them).’’

Giles was particularly taken with the ways in which Cleage juxtaposed her characters. She remarks, ‘‘Flyin’ West is primarily a study in character contrasts.’’ The starkest contrasts are between Frank and the other characters. Reviewing a performance of the play in North American Review, theater critic Robert L. King commended Cleage for making ‘‘him deserve the death that the audience vigorously applauded.’’

Giles concluded her critical analysis of Cleage’s historical plays with the comment that the playwright ‘‘demands that we air the festering wounds of our history, as black and white Americans and as men and women, so that we can begin to clean and heal them.’’ King gave Cleage credit for an original and important premise that ‘‘allows her to raise questions of race, history, and gender—indirectly for the most part—and to introduce humor with the casual comfort that a true community enjoys.’’

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Essays and Criticism